Joe Louis Became Both a Black Hero and a National Symbol to Whites after Overcoming Racism in the Media

Article excerpt

When Joe Louis sent James Braddock to Madison Square Garden's well-worn canvas on a balmy evening in June of 1937, Louis became only the second black American to win the coveted championship of boxing's heavyweight division. Not since the unpredictable, whimsical and often defiant Jack Johnson terrorized and offended white America's mores in 1910 had a black man worn the crown of American masculinity.

After Johnson's heavyweight "reign of terror" made white America pallid with fear, blacks were forbidden to challenge white champions for the sport's highest honor. It is not surprising then, due to prevailing racial prejudice and the short history of blacks in boxing, that early white media images of the Brown Bomber were decidedly negative.

White journalists either spoke out against interracial bouts or punished Louis with stinging stereotypical caricatures designed to belittle blacks and reassure whites of their superiority. However, due to Louis' awe-inspiring ring prowess, the depressed condition of boxing in the mid-1930s, the champ's squeaky-clean image, and a growing racial tolerance that emerged to combat the aggression of the Axis powers during World War II, white media images of Louis gradually became more positive.

Eventually, the white media made Louis a national hero. By contrast, the black press made Louis a race hero throughout his stellar career. The pages of black newspapers were saturated with stories, comic strips and advertisements featuring their black icon.

The sheer volume of stories on Louis in the black press was tremendous, far surpassing those in the white publications. Black writers wrote with a more personal tone than their white counterparts, and editors placed stories on Louis in more prominent positions within their papers. The black press framed their hero with words and photos that cast him as an idyllic exemplar for the black race, while the white press, despite its belated penchant for thrusting him into the role of national hero, often described the champ in stereotypical or impersonal terms. Nevertheless, it is the national-hero image provided by the white press and the black writers' molding of Louis into a black exemplar that crystalized to form the lasting dual image of one of boxing's greatest champions, and a man who probably eased some of the racial tension between blacks and whites.

With the hated Jack Johnson as the only black boxer who had held the heavyweight championship, it is no surprise then that, as Gerald Astor writes in And A Credit To His Race, "Joe Louis' early boxing career was stalked with the spectre of Jack Johnson."[1]

While racial conditions in the 1930s were slightly better than in Johnson's day, blacks were discriminated against by legislation in the South. Even the more liberal northern states provided little relief from discrimination for blacks. The Yankees residing in New York or Boston apparently preferred a white champion as much as the average southernet.[2]

Louis faced a fear-inspiring tradition and a racist, paranoid society. Many white writers condemned interracial boxing. Sam Lacy, sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-american, recalled in a 1989 interview, "Louis was initially perceived as a threat and many white writers reacted against him in their work."[3] Chris Mead writes in Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America, "For years whites had used exaggerated racial fears as an excuse for excluding blacks from full participation in American life."[4] White sportswriters feared that interracial boxing matches might spawn race riots similar to those that erupted in the Johnson era.[5] in June 1935, on the eve of Louis' fight with Max Baer, Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich expressed American hopes for the white contender, "They say Baer will surpass himself in the knowledge that he is the lone white hope for the defense of Nordic superiority in the prize ring. …